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Columbus Crew SC mid-season progress reports: Defenders

There have been plenty of goals conceded, but how has each defender really performed?

MLS: Orlando City SC at Columbus Crew SC Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

We began our Massive Report mid-season progress reports on Tuesday with a look at the only goalkeeper who’s played for Columbus Crew SC this season, Zack Steffen.

In this version of the progress reports, we take a look at the Crew SC defense.

It’s one of the position groups that has been scrutinized heavily this season. Despite having some issues, it isn’t as bad as it looks on paper. The team has five shutouts and held opponents to just one goal four other times.

Let’s take a look at how each defensive player has stacked up so far this year.

Lalas Abubakar

The fifth-overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft has shown potential this season, but hasn’t put it all together quite yet. In his rookie campaign he has made five starts on loan to Columbus’ USL affiliate Pittsburgh Riverhounds, gaining valuable professional experience.

Many thought the former U-20 Ghanian international would see his first action in Black and Gold against FC Cincinnati in U.S. Open Cup play. This was not the case, but Gregg Berhalter debuted his rookie defender on Independence Day against Minnesota United.

Abubakar thrived in his lone MLS appearance against the Loons, as he and the defense didn’t concede a goal in his debut. The future is bright for this prospect, but the jury is still out on Abubakar.

Grade: N/A

Harrison Afful

MLS: Orlando City SC at Columbus Crew SC Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 season has been interesting for the Ghanaian.

In his third year with Crew SC, Afful has made 14 appearances for the club. The right wing back started the season strong as he earned Team of the Week honors for his performance against the Portland Timbers in game four, but has taken a dip in form as of late.

His control of the ball is lacking and causing him to be the victim of unnecessary turnovers and these result in tremendous opportunities for the opposition. Afful has been uncharacteristically caught out of position numerous times this season and indecisive on the ball, which hasn’t been a problem in years past.

Here’s hoping he can turn things around.

Grade: C+

Alex Crognale

The former Maryland Terrapin burst onto the scene this year when Crew SC deployed the three-back set for the first time against D.C. United in mid-March.

Since then, Columbus fans have loved the Homegrown defender from Gahanna.

Crognale has made 12 appearances for the Black & Gold this season. He picked up Team of the Week honors for his debut performance and was utilized as a substitute against Portland to hold the defense steady to seal the victory.

As is to be expected, Crognale has made a few rookie mistakes but appears very receptive to coaching from Berhalter and the staff. Crognale also is one of the more disciplined Crew SC defenders, as he has only one yellow card this season in 718 minutes played.

Crognale is very athletic despite his tremendous stature and could be an asset for Columbus for years to come.

Grade: B

Waylon Francis

After having an injury-plagued 2016 season, Francis has rebounded nicely in 2017, engaging in a position battle with fellow wing back Jukka Raitala.

Francis has challenged Raitala for minutes as both defenders have provided width to the Crew SC offense. The Costa Rican has also been included on set pieces as Columbus has diversified its takers.

In his 557 minutes played, Francis has completed 79.1 percent of his passes. He is also averaging two interceptions and two tackles per game.

It will be intriguing to see how the left back battle unfolds the rest of the year.

Grade: B-

Connor Maloney

The third-round pick hasn’t spent much time in the Crew SC lineup, and when he has he has still shown room for growth.

Maloney’s lone appearance with the Black & Gold occurred on March 11th against the Houston Dynamo. He also appeared twice on loan for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and was most recently feature in the 18-man gameday roster for Columbus against Minnesota United.

We’re still waiting to see what exactly Maloney will be for Columbus.

Grade: N/A

Jonathan Mensah

MLS: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Mensah arrived to much fanfare at the beginning of the season, as Berhalter let it be known that he wanted to fix the leaky defense that has haunted Crew SC.

Despite his Designated Player contract, the defender has struggled immensely since arriving in Columbus this past winter, many times being caught out of position and making terrible errors at the wrong time.

Berhalter, though, has stuck with the 26 year old, as the team works to help him continue to adjust to the style of play and MLS as a league.

Jonathan seems to lack the basics as a defender in this league and has been known to be streaky in form. He has shown little upside and may be an indication the signing may not work out for the Black & Gold.

Grade: D

Nicolai Naess

The 24-year-old defender has been middle of the road this season.

Naess started the season strong, but ever since the 5-0 loss to Toronto FC, he has struggled to finding his footing and injuries and poor form have kept him out of the lineup recently.

Despite a dip in his performances, Naess has remained solid in possession at the back for Berhalter, boasting the fourth-best passing percentage amongst defenders for Crew SC, completing 86.4 percent of his passes.

Naess should regain his form as the season continues and look to be a solid pairing with whomever is deployed next to him.

Grade: B-

Jukka Raitala

Locked into a position battle with the aforementioned Francis, Raitala has enjoyed a good debut campaign.

Raitala has appeared for Crew SC on 16 occasions and wasted little time contributing to the offense, earning his first assist against Houston on March 11th.

For a defender Raitala is a good ball distributor with a 79 percent pass completion percentage. The Finnish international doesn’t attract attention from the officials either, as Raitala has earned only one yellow card this season.

The left back brings in yet another offensive threat to the Crew SC arsenal, but he is capable of tracking back when called upon.

Grade: B-

Josh Williams

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Williams has picked up some knowledge and experience since returning to the club. The veteran defender is now a member of the Crew SC leadership council and one of the respected players within the locker room.

Williams picked up a few milestones this season, earning his 75th appearance for the Black & Gold on May 6th against the New England Revolution and also making his 100th MLS start against the Montreal Impact on June 24th.

Like Naess, Williams is one of the key distributors for the defense. He has an 86 percent pass completion, and is well disciplined only earning one yellow card this season.

Grade: B+

Hector Jimenez

Crew SC’s utility man has returned for yet another season. Jimenez is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to playing the beautiful game.

When Jimenez has entered the game, he has made an impact. He currently sits tied for third in key passes per game, trailing only Justin Meram and Federico Higuain.

He has demonstrated a tremendous ability to cross the ball into the box and is great at finding an attacking player for a shot on frame. Jimenez has a tremendous workrate and can be used as an injection of life for Crew SC at multiple positions during the course of the game.

Grade: B+